Project 75 – As China Arms Pakistan With Lethal Submarines, Is Indian Navy ‘On Backfoot’ Despite Being A Global Naval Power?

OPED By Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, Indian Navy (Retired)

On 20 April 2022, the sixth and last scorpene-class submarine was launched by Indian Defence Secretary Dr. Ajay Kumar in Mumbai. This brings to an end the Project 75 contract with Mazgaon Docks Limited, Mumbai.

The submarine has to undergo setting to work on various equipment followed by harbor trials. Indian Naval crew will take her to sea for rigorous sea trials before it is officially handed over to the Navy by late 2023.

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The submarine carries the name Vagsheer and is a reincarnation of an earlier submarine. In the Indian Navy, ships and submarines get rechristened after their earlier versions have been decommissioned.

These six submarines were built by MDL under ToT (transfer of technology) from Naval Group of France in a contract of $3.75 billion.

File Image: Vagsheer Launch

The Indian Navy has a 30-year submarine building program which entails designing and building submarines indigenously. The entire program is many years behind the envisaged schedule.

Harnessing an indigenous design has remained an unachieved target for the Navy. There were opportunities to develop upon the SSKs 209 (German Design HDW) as also on Kilo-class whose Medium Refit Life Certification was done by our yards.

Even at this stage the hunt for Project 75(I) is in progress. It will be built under the Strategic Partnership Model for which MDL and L&T shipyards have been shortlisted.

Four original manufacturers are in the fray. It can be safely expected that commencement is a few years away. What happens in the interim when the MDL building line is without work? The expertise obtained in building Scorpene could get lost by the time a submarine of 75(I)  begins production.

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Considering the situation that India is in, both geopolitical and technological, few options are worth examining. That we are short on submarines is a reality. The 30- year submarine building program has become history because we haven’t got an indigenous design yet.

Vagsheer Launch

Project 75(I) AoN was obtained in 2011/12. During the discussions, an alternate proposal was suggested to increase the number of diesel submarines under Project 75 from 6 to 9 and future investments are made to construct 6 SSNs (Nuclear powered but not nuclear-armed attack submarines).

Instead, the option of the mid-life upgrade of Kilo Class and building 75(I) submarines was chosen. The Government could not have afforded funding for mid-life upgrade of Kilo-class and building submarines under Project 75(I) simultaneously.

Therefore, in 2022 India is in the same situation due to Scorpene having been built and yard left without work on the submarine building line and 75(I), not in close vicinity.

Few alternatives could be considered subject to acceptance by the Navy and the backing of the Ministry Of Defence (DoD).

MDL could be contracted to build another three Scorpene submarines. In the meanwhile indigenous AIP (Air Independent Propulsion)  could be retrofitted onto the six submarines already built and three new Scorpenes could be constructed with AIP.

This would keep the MDL line going and trained manpower gainfully employed. A new set of technicians could be trained by the existing skilled workers.

As far as Project 75(I) is concerned, it could be converted to SSN construction for which government-to-government agreement should be explored expeditiously.

The selected submarine could be built jointly by the shortlisted shipyards, L&T and MDL. The time is also ripe to obtain technology for miniaturized nuclear reactors for SSNs to keep abreast with the present times.

File Image: China’s nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

SSNs can cover a much larger area and conduct stealth reconnaissance in the IOR (and possibly Indo Pacific) in a lesser duration. Therefore, a lesser number of submarines may be deployed leaving diesel submarines for near coast deployments.

Meanwhile, the collusion between China and Pakistan is resulting in Pakistan getting 8 submarines from China (3 to be built in Karachi Shipyard). The induction has already begun.

In addition, 3/4 Frigates/ destroyers will result in Pakistan having a different Navy and being a proxy to the Chinese PLA Navy. It is time to be prepared for emerging scenarios.

India’s strategic partnerships with a number of technologically advanced countries could be put to test for acquiring this newer technology.